How other states are fighting not to be like Louisiana and its ‘Cancer Alley’


When you live embedded within a toxic infrastructure like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a long stretch of the Mississippi River that’s lined with petrochemical plants and infused with some of the worst air and water pollution in the United States, every day can be a struggle.’

It must feel that way for people like Lydia Gerard and Robert Taylor who come from the tiny town of Reserve, La., which sits in the heart of “Cancer Alley” and which is home to a chemical plant operated by Japanese-based Denka that spews out the highest recorded pollution rates in the United States. Gerard, 65, lost her husband to cancer two years ago while the 79-year-old Taylor received his cancer diagnosis in 2013.

It’s hard for residents in a poverty-stricken place like Reserve to fight back against Big Plastics and its pollution, especially when the bosses are on the other side of the world. But remarkably, with the support of donations, Gerard and Taylor have actually travelled to Japan twice in three months, desperate to reach the top executives of Denka and convince them to close the plant.

 “We live next to the Denka plant in Louisiana, and we have lots of concerns,” Gerard told the Japanese security guards at company headquarters. “We want to give them this information.” She wanted the company’s executives to know that their small census tract near the plant has a rate of airborne toxicity that is 50 times higher than the national average, and the worst reading in the entire United States.

Now it probably won’t surprise you when I tell you that Gerard and Taylor did not get in to see the top brass at Denka, despite having traveled thousands of miles, and despite the Japanese reputation for politeness and hospitality. Knowing the Louisiana spirit, it’s also not hard to imagine that the two Reserve residents will be back again — maybe more than once. But their story does reveal a cruel truth of environmentalism, which is that once a polluting plant is open it’s sure hard to shut down.

That’s why the reputation of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” has spread far and wide in recent years, because other states are so desperate to prevent dealing with one of their own. For residents of the Ohio River Valley in the heart of America’s Rust Belt, there is this alarming headline: “Will a push for plastics turn Appalachia into next ‘Cancer Alley’?”

The story focuses on the massive, 386-acre multi-billion-dollar plastics plant that Royal Dutch Shell is currently building on the banks of the Ohio in Beaver County, Pa., near the state’s western border. The plant aims to convert ethane — a wet natural gas that is frequently the output of the fracking rigs that now dot Appalachia — into a huge amount of plastics, some 1.6 million tons, every year.

The Big Oil icon is forging ahead with the plant even as the world is learning that plastics are even worse for the environment than originally thought, with new evidence that so-called microplastics are now the most omnipresent pollutant on the planet, turning up in the food chain even as a giant belt of plastic garbage floats in the Pacific Ocean.

But that’s not the only ecological harm that would come from the Royal Dutch Shell plant once it goes online. It’s estimated that the facility will annually emit a whopping 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes heavily to global warming. Incredibly, this is the exact amount that the nearby city of Pittsburgh had pledged to reduce, with the goal of staving off a planetary calamity of drought, floods and species extinction.

You might think that Pennsylvania public officials would be working hard to prevent such a monstrosity – especially as they pay political lip service to ending manmade global warming — but instead they’ve offered Royal Dutch Shell a mammoth tax break, citing the jobs being created both in construction and in running the plant.

“To me, it’s so obvious that they are trying to lock us into fossil fuels,” Terrie Baumgardner, a member of the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, told the Guardian newspaper. She’s one of the many residents and local public health officials alarmed at the rush to build the plant, especially with nearby Pittsburgh one of the most polluted cities in America, even after the decades-long decline of the steel industry.

Just like Louisiana’s Denka plant, the Royal Dutch Shell facility in Pennsylvania, which is half erected, may be too far along to stop. But hopefully the experience has taught residents how to make sure there are no more plastics plants in their region — that the Ohio Valley does not become America’s next “Cancer Alley.” This Louisiana resident can assure them — one is more than enough!

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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